Two headteachers and a director of school improvement in Nottinghamshire have swapped roles for two years. It’s a move that has nudged them out of their comfort zones . . . 

Forget the US reality TV show Wife Swap. An academy trust in Nottinghamshire has gone one better by encouraging three senior leaders to switch schools.

Claire Cuthbert, the chief executive of the Evolve Trust, set up the two-year role swap as the centrepiece of its school improvement plan with a view to develop the leaders’ potential as future chief executives.

It comes at a time when expansion of the academy trust model seems to have changed the traditional role of senior leaders in the chain of command: are they in charge or do they simply deliver the vision of trustees through the techniques favoured by those above them?

I’d like them to go on and become chief executives

Two heads at Evolve – which runs three academies in the ex-mining town of Mansfield – and its director of school improvement switched roles: Carl Atkin, the head at Brunts secondary academy, became director of school improvement; Michael Lucas, the director of school improvement, went to head the special school, Beech Academy, whose head, Adrian O’Malley, took on the Brunts. Meanwhile a new head, Charlotte Elliott, was appointed at the trust’s third school, the Bramble primary academy.

The three are half-way through their swaps before they return to their original schools.

Atkin describes the moment in February last year when Cuthbert suggested to her all-male headship team that they swap schools. The longest had been in post for ten years.

Michael Lucas, headteacher of the Beech Academy helps a student in year 7

“It was a bit of a tumbleweed moment,” he says. “What is the risk? But then we realised we could call on each other’s help and expertise. That afternoon, we said yes.”

So what has he learnt?

“I’ve never worked across a different age phase. The biggest change is looking at the strategy across all the schools. I was becoming quite operational as a head, and quite comfortable.”

Cuthbert puts it another way: she says that Atkin saw his leadership, like his school, as being “good with outstanding features” (Ofsted’s judgment after an inspection in 2017).

“I knew the place like the back of my hand,” Atkin says. “I knew the staff, the buildings, I even knew where the drains were. But I was starting to lose that level of challenge. This swap has prevented that.”

Left to right: Carl Atkin, the director of school improvement, Adrian O’Malley the head at Brunts, Claire-Marie Cuthbert, the chief executive of the trust and Michael Lucas, the head of Beech

Atkin says that when he returns to his secondary he wants to knit the curriculum more closely with the primary curriculum. Similarly, observing his colleague make the move to the special needs Beech Academy has led him to feel more strongly that SEND pupils should access the same level of challenge as pupils without additional needs.

“I see my secondary with fresh eyes. There are things I would do differently, like the ways we developed the culture of the school.”

Lucas, now head of the Beech, says “from a leadership perspective” it’s not been too different. “It’s still about having a vision and building a team around you and driving the school forward. But from a teacher perspective, I’ve learned a hell of a lot. My ability to differentiate my lessons for pupils is much better. I’d never taught students with the complexity of needs at the Beech. That was a huge learning curve.

“I’d also underestimated how important it was to build very strong relationships with the students. A lot have had failed mainstream placements, so potentially there’s an absence of trust there and you need to build trust and rapport – the rules aren’t as black and white as they can be in mainstream. You have to go the extra mile.

“It’s been the most rewarding part of my senior leadership career. I would absolutely recommend to anyone to hone their skills by teaching in a special school, you’ve got to be willing to try new things. This has been a masterstroke.”

Cuthbert’s main focus has been the schools’ “culture”. When she joined Evolve in September 2016, Brunts had been “good” for several years, but it was supporting the Ofsted “inadequate” primary, while the special needs school was in special measures.

Cuthbert noticed that her three heads seemed to be working in silos without collaboration, and that there was no overall trust strategy for school improvement.

A firm believer in “culture eats strategy for breakfast”, she enlisted Professor Ben Laker, the academic who put forward the five “types” of school leadership: the surgeon, philosopher, soldier, architect and accountant.

His research controversially linked the style of leadership to subject specialisms, claiming that PE and RE teachers were the most likely to be ruthless “surgeon” heads.

But the research also won plaudits for making a strong case for long-term school improvement. And it was Laker who helped Cuthbert to come up with the idea for the headship swap. The pair developed the trust’s new values – ambition, integrity, inclusivity, reward and endeavour – but Cuthbert wasn’t convinced they were embedded.

“I sometimes felt it was quite tokenistic and they were just paying lip service. I said, ‘if you really believe in the trust values and culture, it won’t matter which school you’re in’. That’s why I moved them.”

Atkin says the values provided the much-needed stability to make the swaps a success. “The common ground across the schools is those values – we recognise and reward pupils and staff using similar systems.”

Cuthbert also introduced a concept-led curriculum in the three schools to provide more consistency across subjects, and an enrichment programme.

What is most remarkable is her dedication to professionally developing the heads. The schools were improving before the swap: in December 2017, Bramble became “requires improvement” and in May 2017 Beech became “good”. But for Cuthbert, better Ofsteds are not enough: the point is to develop some of the best leaders in the academy system.

“The idea is they are becoming better heads and they can take the practice they have learned back to their home school – which has also moved on in the time they have been away. But I’d also like them to go on and become CEOs and provide other heads with the same learning opportunities. It’s about wider system change.”

Cuthbert also introduced the Headship Institute, a development programme involving fortnightly meet-ups for heads to discuss the latest research on best practice, share what is working at their schools, and reinforce the trust’s culture and values.

Year 10 students from Beech

This term’s core text is The Barcelona Way, a book by Damian Hughes about the famous football club and “unlocking the DNA of a winning culture”.

Cuthbert restructured a central leadership board “the size of a football team”. Her success has been to refocus the top of the trust’s structure (and salaries) on educational leadership.

She also scrapped individual school governing bodies and moved the best people from each on to five “scrutiny boards” for standards, personal development, audit and finance, health, safety and estates and HR. In September there will be a “community” board too.

“Rather than keeping the expertise at one school, each scrutiny board looks at one thing across all three schools. The governors love it.”

Last year the trust won an award for outstanding governance from the National Governance Association, which lauded Evolve’s “unique approach to governing and leading, in that the trust seeks to actively contribute to a much bigger system, while not losing sight of the needs of existing stakeholders”.

Last week the Department for Education appointed a panel to review the official guidance on how heads should do their job. The first review since 2015, it comes amid concerns the headteacher standards are not being used enough – perhaps a sign their role has been neglected.

It was a bit of a tumbleweed moment

Given that Cuthbert seems to have a rare ability to implement a trust-wide vision for her schools, while simultaneously developing rather than overshadowing the expertise of those involved, Evolve’s model is one the new panel might consider.

Meanwhile, the trust plans to extend its school leadership swap programme to include assistant and deputy heads, who will swap roles for one year from September.

Should there be a chief executive swap too? “Yes, I’d love that,” Cuthbert says. “That would be great!” Her next project, perhaps?